Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Catching up with female singers:
Molly, Lucy, Lizzie, Angie, Joanie, Ellie
Reviews by Rob Lester

Turtle Bay Records
CD | Digital | Vinyl

It's almost impossible not to smile when bright-voiced Molly Ryan sings cheery songs from the early years of the 20th century, with the period pep emphasized by her simpatico musicians and the blithe arrangements. Calling the collection Sweepin' the Blues Away aptly sums up their job description and merry mission. We're clued in as soon as we hear the first notes and rhythm of the optimistic opener whose title suggests the set's name: Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's "Get Yourself a New Broom (and Sweep the Blues Away)." A similar kind of musical miracle elixir, "Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella (on a Rainy Day)," adds to the advice and then there's the prescriptive perspective about wet weather being worth the trade-off: "If You Want the Rainbow (You Must Have the Rain)." What all three titles have in common (besides parentheses) is that their simplistic thoughts can seem practical (in the right hands).

What makes these renditions so delicious is that Molly and her four musicians never patronize the oldies or wink at them with a sense of later-generation superiority. And they're not aping any particular famous antique recordings. The glee is never forced or twee. It's an unpretentious approach that fondly embraces the senior citizen songs. The melodies come springing to life played with flair and care by the quartet. They are Dan Levinson (doubling on sax and clarinet, with a third role as the singer's husband), Rossano Sportiello (making the piano dance in a sprightly way or cradle ballads), with bassist Rob Adkins and drummer Kevin Dorn also making spot-on contributions.

Happiness is the drug of choice, but on an 11-track album one can overdose if downing uppers, so, happily, there are a few chill pills here, too. Bliss is expressed more calmly, recalling the memorable night "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square." Likewise radiant and serene is the portrait of an imagined future featuring the opposite kind of longtime sharing of life and home: "The Folks Who Live on the Hill." Another romance's cohabitation situation meets its lamented ending in "A Cottage for Sale." It brings blues not so swiftly swept away, but it's not wildly weepy. It is, however, far more despairing and lonely than the pondering about an ex in "I Wonder Who's Kissing Him Now," which feels focused on face-value curiosity rather than envy.

And, as for me, thanks to revisits to this set, I'm still smiling.


My only frustration with singer Lucy Wijnands' new digital release is that there are only six tracks, but Something Awaits is something wonderful that is likely to leave those reaching the last track simply taking a cue from one of its song titles: "Start All Over Again." That's one she co-wrote with the set's bassist Omer Avital (one of the seven musicians), sharing its shrug-it-off attitude about moving on when romantic relationships don't work out, set to a charmingly sauntering strut. It's a little glib in a quite appealing way, thus only hinting at the depth and variety the splendid performer is shown to be capable of. Her radiant, clear voice sails smoothly through the material with star quality. The sunniness is particularly on display in "Always and Forever," which she wrote with her stride pianist dad, Bram Wijnands.

A refreshingly different approach makes "You'll Never Walk Alone" from the musical Carousel the most impressive selection. We're used to hearing this inspirational guidance presented formally, somewhat stentorian, as it aims to steer us to strength and stoicism. Lucy Wijnands, instead, takes a gentle path, as if she's right next to a fragile soul, caringly crooning into that person's ear, instilling a "you can do it" belief. Phrasing is nuanced, with mini-melisma moments, and vocal power builds in a calibrated way in line with the transmitted confidence and hope. Another rewardingly emotional rendition on Something Awaits is the nostalgic "Time Was," shorn of the shmaltzy sentimentality its lyric's litany of memories can bring on. It feels true, not like goo.

Lucy Wijnands only recently finished college, but is already on the map, having appeared on other albums (including a collection of gems with Jimmy Van Heusen melodies) and performed at venues such as Birdland in New York City. (Calendar Note: Her next gig in that city, her home base, is this Sunday, July 9, at Mezzrow in Greenwich Village.) Also notable is that she won a singing competition named for jazz icon Ella FItzgerald–just one more thing that makes Miss Wijnands a real winner.

Dot Time Records
CD | Digital

The adjective "compelling" is le mot juste to describe the 12 tracks on the recent release Duo Encounters. It presents adventurous jazz songstress Lizzie Thomas in the company of one instrumentalist on each selection. Each top-drawer guest of honor appears just once. Giving credit where credit is "duo," these are true partnering efforts where both parties shine as they interact, sharing the spotlight. The spare approach and intimacy especially benefit ballads that are dramatic, slow and sorrowful. They feel all the more emotionally exposed. Listeners may feel like eavesdroppers on those, especially the hope-drained "Lush Life," with Wayne Escoffery's empathetic tenor sax that is also its own cry of pain, and "'Round Midnight" is dark and dignified with cellist Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf (who's played in the orchestra of 20 Broadway musicals, including the current Parade). But there's also a bit of "glad" to balance all the "sad."

As on a couple of past releases, the music and lyrics of Cole Porter's are notably included. This time there are three samples and they come up shining every time. "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" gets some of its words doled out with decidedly crisp staccato precision, the singer kind of plucking her syllables, almost emulating what her companion, Noriko Ueda, does on the bass. The other two Porters pair the singer with pianists: Helio Alves helps sell "Love for Sale"'s assertive stance and John di Martino, who deserves extra applause for arranging and producing the whole project with such skill, seems to coax tears from the keyboard on the woeful "After You, Who?."

With her co-stars, Lizzie Thomas rises to each challenge on these well-established classics, bringing something inventive to each, sometimes taking large or small "Lizzie liberties" with a melodic line or phrasing. With veteran bassist Ron Carter, we can imagine the addressed tree in "Willow Weep for Me" drooping with their droopy mood as they take advantage of the lyric's prominent use of the word "bend" to have these two jazz comrades bend the note to which it is assigned. Mature musings and reflections radiate through the thoughtfully considered "Both Sides Now" with Ron Affif's lustrous guitar. The portrait of the wise "Nature Boy," never missing mystique, becomes extra-haunting and more metaphysical when the singer adeptly spins the tale with awe as Café da Silva provides atmospheric percussion sounds, and silences are also allowed to hang in the air.

On the bright side, pianist Rossano Sportiello, whose playing has enlivened recordings with songbirds such as Molly Ryan and Rebecca Kilgore, does the same for Miss Thomas as they float through "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me." And this cut doesn't cut the song's introductory verse, a habit I appreciate whenever it is in evidence on Duo Encounters, a marvelously masterful set to savor.

Cafe Pacific Records
CD | Digital

Like a play with a wide assortment of deftly portrayed distinctive characters, the new release by chameleon-like singer Angie Wells captivates with its varied moods, attitudes, and song styles. Truth Be Told lets us meet someone with a severe case of the blues ("Moanin'," combined with the "Work Song" of a prisoner on a chain gang), and the optimist spouting the advice to "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive (Mister In-Between)" and so many mindsets in between. She's equally convincing whether showing grit, gratitude, worry or winsomeness.

Intriguingly, the gospel number "I've Got a Feeling" is threaded through the album, heard in four guises, instrumental and vocal (each time briefly). All are arranged by producer John Clayton who guests on the track that is a major dramatic highlight as his bowing bass becomes the accompaniment for an elegant, elegiac rendition of "You Don't Know What Love Is." Other stellar musicians appear, including pianist Josh Nelson, who contributes eight arrangements (including collaborating on the aforementioned medley with the singer).

Truth Be Told's title number is a Wells original, a memorial of sorts that laments (by name), and forces acknowledgement of, many deaths at the hands of police in racially charged incidents. Singers Lynne Fiddmont and Valerie Geason join her to strong effect on this searing number that follows in the tradition of Nina Simone's searing social indictments. (A Simone-penned piece, "Do I Move You?," is on the set list, too.)

Larry Koonse's guitar enhances "Here's to Life" (sung with requisite thanksgiving, at this tune's typically glacial pace), contrasting selections co-written by the singer, and even a cameo appearance by Angie Wells' teen-age son who sprinkles in the last word in each of several lines of a casual visit to the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away from Me."

The multi-faceted woman (she maintains a second career as a make-up artist for TV and film) brings a lot to the table and Chelsea Table + Stage will be the next place she does so when she graces their Manhattan nightclub stage on July 15. She's the real deal.

Southport Records
CD | Digital

In the latest in a long line of releases, Accidental Melody, Chicago-based vocalist Joanie Pallatto exudes seriousness in this presentation of 13 songs she wrote or co-wrote. She seems uber-earnest and pensive, intense and intent on sharing learned life lessons. Lyrics offer observations as well as words of advice and encouragement. We're guided to "Surrender" to and welcome what life presents, whether that is an elusive musical idea (the title song) or love that will eventually find us ("Don't Ever Look for Love"). It can get heavy-handed, but it's heartfelt and richly musical.

The myriad of messages can resemble anything from pithy perspectives printed on paper strips inside fortune cookies to the worthy words of wisdom of a sage philosopher, life coach, self-help book, or guiding grandparent who knows what you need to hear. While the posits may risk coming across as pat or platitudinous, the decidedly sympathetic and supportive sensibilities do much to make the well-meaning mission feel genuine rather than preachy. Often, the warm Pallatto voice makes palatable what could otherwise be the more resistible taste of this strong medicine (or truth serum) served with no such honey. And, very significantly, the atmosphere-drenched, moody accompaniment turns hummable homilies into denser hypnotic persuasion. Skillful Fareed Haque's sultry playing of classical, electric, and string guitars anchors the magic on all but two especially tender tracks. On those ("The Melody of You" and "Sound"), there is just piano accompaniment, courtesy of husband Bradley Parker-Sparrow, co-writer of those and four others.

Topics include appreciating music and musicians ("A Shooting Star" is dedicated to Haque) as well as facing the passing years ("In the Middle of Life," "Keeping Track of Time"), informed by getting through the pandemic. The desire to drive home points may be the cause of a tendency to rely on emphatic repetition of words and phrases. For example, the oft-appearing chorus of a number called "You Think You Know" goes, "You think you know, you think you know, but do you know?" altered only by sometimes substituting other pronouns ("we" or "they").

Joanie Pallatto makes her material feel alternately like the intimate diary entries of an individual's experience or an earth mother's universal truths. Either way, one would be hard pressed to doubt the sincerity or sensitivity.

CD | Digital

Certainly a change-of-pace as a whole, singer-songwriter Ellie Martin's debut, Verdant, has one change of pace after another as its tracks unfold. Tempi and styles vary; there's a number in Spanish ("Lucianita"), another features her scat-singing, a number feels fully folky while it's more generally jazzy or genre-defying. Poetic idylls share the stage with down-to-earth realities and life's hurdles. Lyrics were inspired by such topics as death, disease, divorce, politics and Pittsburgh. Her sweet-timbred voice floats through the air, often seeming ethereal and gossamer–but it can also throb with strength. The most effective piece to my mind and ears is "As Time Goes," with bittersweet lessons about aging, such as the acceptance of trading youth for truth. Guest singer Mike Harrison has an effectively complementary voice and they come off as commiserating kindred spirits comparing notes.

Let's consider a few samples of the lyrics: Verdant's title song is quite lovely in its picturesque description of the outdoors in spring ("Verdant green comes to life once more,/ Pale pinks in a field of barley/ Meadowlarks sing from tree to tree"). Switching from the beauty of Mother Nature to an aspect of human nature–confidence or the lack thereof–here's some self-affirmation lingo in a number called "Step Into Your Essence": "I have something to say...I am more than net worth/ And I am not my things./ I am not my hair/ Or the fancy clothes that I wear."

Peter Eldridge has been a mentor and handles the keyboard commandingly, although the talented man who's known for his singing, solo and with the jazz group New York Voices, only adds his sublime vocal harmonies on one occasion ("Moments"). Other instrumentation is guitar, bass, and drums (husband Olman Piedra), with occasional additions of another sound (clarinet, accordion, trumpet).

Verdant requires more than casual listening, as structures tend to be non-traditional and it is not always easy to catch all the words. Nevertheless, so much of it sounds strikingly pretty the first time around and becomes pretty interesting on further investigation and exposure.